The avoidable tragedy of Kris Kross [May 24, 1992]
Plus: Shut Up and Dance, The Cure, Wilson Phillips, and Stereolab
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋 Welcome back to the week of May 24, 1992.
📰 In the news this week: the UK government throws a fit when 20,000 new age travellers host the Castlemorton Common Festival, which is the biggest illegal rave in British history.
📽️New films in the cinema include Sean Connery as Medicine Man and Armand Assante in The Mambo Kings.
📺On TV, it’s a big moment in the States as Johnny Carson steps down as host of The Tonight Show, handing over the reins to Jay Leno.
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🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is still ‘Please Don’t Go’ by K.W.S. But this week, let’s listen to…
This week’s Number 4: ‘Jump’ — Kris Kross
In 2013, gossip site TMZ published a short video clip obtained through dubious means.
The video is two minutes of handheld iPhone footage, showing a party in a plush house.
No. “Party” is the wrong word. This video was shot long after the real party died out. This is the post-party, or post-post-party. A half-dozen or so stalwarts are gathered around a kitchen table, all of them slurring and dazed, as the dawn light creeps through the curtains.
If you’ve ever been in this situation, you’ll instantly recognise the vibe. These people aren’t here because they’re having fun. They’re here because they can’t remember the way home.
TMZ have blanked out every face in this video, except one. A handsome man, youthful if not young. The camera gets right in his face until he’s all we can see.
And, although he’s just as wasted as everyone else, this man seems to transform when he’s the centre of attention. He starts rapping and dancing along to the music playing in the background.
Some people are natural stars. This guy is one of them.
And then he seems to fade out again. He loses the thread of the song, loses interest in the camera, and wanders back to the dying embers of the party.
The cameraman keeps rolling, turning his attention to a collection of gold and platinum discs on the wall. Each disc has an engraved plaque that details the achievement behind the award. One reads: to Chris Kelly for selling 500,000 copies of the album Totally Krossed Out.
Within a few hours of this video, Chris Kelly would be dead, killed by a lethal cocktail of cocaine and heroin. He died on April 29, 2013, exactly 21 years after ‘Jump’ was top of the Billboard Hot 100.
It’s really tempting to draw a line from A to B here.
A kid becomes the biggest rapper in the world at 13. He dies at 34 after a long struggle with drug addiction. These two events must surely be connected. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.
But I’m having trouble finding reliable sources about what really happened behind the scenes with Kris Kross. I’ve heard gossip about them having substance abuse issues during the ‘Jump’ era, when they were still in their early teens. There are widespread rumours of sexual exploitation. However, nobody seems to have ever gone on the record about any of this, so we don’t know for sure.
Here’s what we do know. In 1991, an Atlanta-based producer Jermaine Dupri was managing a group called Silk Tymes Leather. He and the band were shopping at a mall when two kids approached and asked for autographs. Those kids were Chris "Mac Daddy" Kelly and Chris "Daddy Mac" Smith.
Jermaine Dupri was himself something of a child prodigy. He had been hustling his way up the Atlanta music scene ever since he was 10, when he managed to wrangle his way onstage to dance with Diana Ross. He was only 19 years old in 1991 but was already establishing himself as a powerbroker on the Atlanta scene.
Dupri immediately saw something in these two kids. Although Smith and Kelly had never performed before, he signed them on the spot and began constructing the Kris Kross brand.
Dupri was inspired by another group of teen rappers that had made it big. Another Bad Creation, a group consisting of six kids aged 6 to 12 who had a big hit in 1990 with the song ‘Iesha’, making a lot of money for their manager, Michael “Biv from Bell Biv DeVoe” Bivens.
Another Bad Creation (or ABC) had a tacky gimmick of wearing their clothes inside-out. Kris Kross took the piss out of this a little by wearing their clothes back-to-front. In the first verse of their first single, Chris “Mac Daddy” Kelly raps:
Don't try to compare us to Another Bad little fad
… cause inside out, it's wiggida wiggida wiggida wack
Yes, that’s right. ‘Jump’ is, in part, a diss track. This was possibly the only hip-hop beef where most of the belligerents had a 9pm bedtime.
Kris Kross’s first single, ‘Jump’ completely surpassed anything ABC ever did. For a moment, Kris Kross eclipsed every other rapper, including all of the grown-ups in hip-hop.
In Stereogum’s retrospective of this song, Tom Breihan makes an interesting point about how most mainstream rap hits before ‘Jump’ were either pop songs with rap elements (‘Set Adrift on Memory Bliss’) or processed, sanitised garbage (‘Ice Ice Baby’).
But, while Kris Kross was a novelty band, the song ‘Jump’ is itself not a novelty song. It is a proper rap song. Breihan goes on to say:
Kris Kross’ debut single and only #1 hit was, in its time, the most credible version of rap music that had ever made its way to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. In its time and for many years afterwards, “Jump” was also the biggest rap hit of all time.
But there was no big follow-up hit. Their second album did okay. The third album flopped. And then it was over. By the time Smith and Kelly were 18, they were has-beens.
It’s hard for faded celebs to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. How does someone live with that feeling when they’re still just a kid?
‘Jump’ is a great song.
The beat is built on ten different samples, ranging from 'I Want You Back’ by Jackson 5 to ‘I Could Just Kill a Man’ by Cypress Hill. Smith and Kelly are slick, confident rappers. They got bars, as today’s young people might say.
But listening to it again makes me think about something we’ve discussed a lot recently: the way celebrity can sometimes be a form of human sacrifice.
That’s doubly true in the case of child stars. Consider, for example, Drew Barrymore. In 1992, Barrymore was at the peak of her wild years, with tabloids and late-night talk show hosts fixated on her drinking, drug abuse and promiscuity. Around the time of ‘Jump’, she posed naked for Interview magazine, cementing her good-girl-gone-bad image.
In 1992, Drew Barrymore was 17 years old. Just four years older than Kris Kross.
We weren’t good at protecting kids in the 1990s. Are we better these days? The current boom in Family Vloggers on YouTube says otherwise. Personally, I think there’s only one cast-iron solution:
Ban child celebrities.
All of them. No exceptions.
In most countries, there are laws that prevent the media from publishing any details about juvenile criminals. You can’t print their names, their pictures, or even include any details that might allow them to be identified.
Let’s extend this to all children. Make everyone grow up in a state of total anonymity until they turn 18. No child actors. No child athletes. No child rappers.
We, as a society, have evolved beyond the need for famous children. We can get grown-ups play the part of teenagers. In the recent Celine Dion biopic, Aline, the 6-year old Dion is played by 58-year old Valérie Lemercier. People said that it was weird and creepy, but is it really weirder and creepier than watching a genuine 6-year old? A kid who should be outside, playing with her friends? Why should she sacrifice her childhood for our entertainment?
Just ban them. Ban all children from the media.
We’ve spent the last few weeks talking about the horror of being famous. We can’t protect kids from all the horrors of the world, but we can save them from this one.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 2 (New Entry): ‘Raving I’m Raving’ — Shut Up And Dance
‘Raving I’m Raving’ is a kind of rave parody of Marc Cohen’s 1991 hit, ‘Walking In Memphis’, with all the lyrics changed to be about going to a sweaty club.
Just one problem: they forgot to get clearance from Marc Cohen. His lawyers were immediately on the blower to Shut Up And Dance, and the DJs agreed to not press any further copies of the single after the initial run.
Word got out about the legal situation, causing a surge of demand as ravers snapped up the single before it was deleted. The single went rocketing up the charts, very nearly deposing K.W.S. from the top spot.
This is ironic as hell because the original ‘Walking In Memphis’ peaked at Number 22. Therefore, Marc Cohen’s lawyers are better at boosting record sales than Marc Cohen’s publicists.
Number 8 (↑ from 31): ‘Friday I’m In Love’ — The Cure
Also, if you haven’t already seen Robert Smith’s interview when inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, you should treat yourself and watch it now:
Number 15 (New Entry): ‘Back to the Old School’ — Bassheads
Quick question: what do you consider “old school”? For The Bassheads, “old school” probably meant 1982 to 1988, or thereabouts. Basically, beats that were around five to ten years old.
So, if today’s generation were to make a song about “the old school”, they would be talking about music from 2018.
Number 19 (↓ from 18): ‘You Won’t See Me Cry’ — Wilson Phillips
Gen Z are—quite rightly—fascinated and enraged by celebrities with famous parents. They call these second-generation celebrities “Nepo Babies”, in reference to the nepotism behind their success.
To be fair, Nepo Babies aren’t guaranteed success unless they can bring some genuine talent to the table. Just look at Will Smith’s kids: the very talented Willow is making a name for herself, while the talent-avoidant Jaden has become a punchline.
I wonder what would Gen Z make of Wilson Phillips, all of whom are children of pop royalty? They are Nepo Babies, for sure, but they were also the queens of tight harmonies. Even when the song is a bit meh (like this one), they’re always nice to listen to.
Number 24 (New Entry): ‘Rich and Strange’ — Cud
1992 is filled with songs that would have been much bigger hits in 1995. This is very much one of them. An extremely catchy bit of indie pop with unusual, unforgettable vocals.
Album of the Week
Peng! — Stereolab
In 1986, NME gave away a free cassette that would shake the world of indie. That cassette was titled C86 and contained some of the most exciting alternative artists in Britain at the time. Or, it was a bunch of shambling, self-indulgent jangle-pop nonsense, depending on how you feel about this kind of sound. Either way, NME were trying to celebrate (and lay claim to) the true spirit of indie.
McCarthy were one of those C86 bands, notable for their swooning melodies and overtly Marxist lyrics (‘Red Sleeping Beauty’ is the probably best song about a Communist revolution since ‘The Internationale’.)
The third McCarthy album featured French vocalist Laetita Sadlier, who was in a relationship with guitarist Tim Gane. McCarthy broke up in 1990, and Sadlier and Gane went off to form their own group, called Stereolab.
Stereolab are a band that far more people have heard of than actually heard, which makes them the natural torchbearers of the C86 spirit. And their debut album, Peng!, does contain echoes of the old indie days while working hard to expand our concept of what alternative music is.
Title track ‘Peng!33’ is a good place to start, with a heavy, melodic guitar line that sounds a bit like McCarthy, while Sadlier assures us that “magical things are happening in this world”:
The indie disco feeling pops up elsewhere too. ‘Stomachworm’ sees Stereolab make a rare foray into glam rock, while ‘The Seeming and The Meaning’ almost sounds like Elastica:
But this is not a McCarthy album. All of the things we associate with Stereolab—krautrock, Nico-esque vocals, tropicalia, weird old synthesizers, and the general vibe that we’re listening to the soundtrack of a lost art movie—are present right from the opening track:
By the end of the record, all of the pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place. The 7-minute epic ‘Surrealchemist’ is a song that couldn’t have been made by any other band:
It’s probably misleading to say that Stereolab were fully formed on their debut album, because I’m not sure that Stereolab have ever been fully formed. This is a band that once said, "to be unique was more important than to be good." Stereolab have always been on a journey, experimenting and innovating and restlessly following their muse.
That journey starts here. Peng! is a hard album to pin down within its 47-ish minutes. It’s a record with a hyperactive soul, always ready to run headlong in pursuit of the next idea that seems halfway interesting.
That, I think, is the true spirit of indie.
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The Take That era begins in earnest, and nothing will ever be the same again.